Thursday, October 21, 2021

Dear Substitute-Desperate Districts. What Are You Doing About It?

There's a great deal of hollering about the lack of substitute teachers. Like the challenge of filling regular teaching positions, this is not a new problem, but the pandemic has exacerbated it considerably. Everywhere you turn, you can find administrators bemoaning their lack of subs.

But if you are one of these administrators, what are you actually doing about it?

Are you raising sub pay? Sub pay is notoriously lousy, particularly if you're hiring them via some substitute or temp service. I started out substitute teaching in 1980; sub pay in local districts has risen about $25 since then. When you factor in the lack of benefits, it's impossible to make a living substitute teaching and the pool from Way Back In The Day (Moms of school-age kids who wanted a little grocery money) is gone. 

Are you tapping the available talent pool? Michigan just sent out a letter to retired teachers, which seems sensible. I'm a recent retiree, but I have yet to get a single request to consider heading back into the classroom. It's not that I'm in any hurry to go back, but if one were looking for subs, wouldn't it make sense to see if you could guilt some retired educators into helping out. They'd have the added feature of already knowing the drill.

Are you making sure your schools are safe? Let's say you're someone who subs in addition to another job to make ends meet (my wife started out substitute teaching and waitressing). You do a day of subbing, then find that one of the 150 students you were around has tested positive for covid--now, depending on your locale and integrity, you lose two weeks of work at both jobs, a pay cut you can't really afford. Too many districts have taken the position that they can just half-ass safety precautions (unenforced masking, no ventilation improvements, crowded classes, etc) and teachers will come to work anyway. But subs, because they don't (aka can't) count on the work to make a living, are volunteers, and if it doesn't seem safe to be in your building, they can choose to not.

Have you lowered the bar? Are you still requiring all sorts of hoop jumping to be a substitute? Plenty of states have been lowering the bar for teaching, and Oregon just dropped the bar on the ground for substitutes. Which is one way to increase the sub pool, but you had better have some supports in place for these amateurs, or you're going to create more problems than you solve.

Have you invited the big wigs? Friend of the Institute Steven Singer has proposed that all those lawmakers so Deeply Concerned about What Is Being Taught In The Classroom can get a first-hand look even as they help solve the subbing problem. I fully endorse this idea.

Have you gotten out there yourself? At this stage of the game, I am kind of amazed to hear from districts where administrators still haven't stepped up to take over classrooms. This is not a small thing. When a classroom stands open because there's no sub, administrators are making a statement, a choice. Sure, they have work to do, but when they cover a missing sub by dragging teachers away from clerical work periods or other assignments, or just cancel the subless class, they are telling the staff "What I do in my office is actually more important than what you teachers do in your classrooms. Administrators who do sub duty are making an important statement, as well as showing that they're willing to get in there shoulder to shoulder with their staff. 

Finally, are you actually doing something? Because sitting in your office and wishing that subs would suddenly appear is not actually doing something. Complaining that nobody is signing up to sub is not doing something. Some districts are terrible at communication (pro tip: just because everyone in your building knows X does not mean that everyone in your community also knows X); this is carrying over into the sub problem.

Remember--it is not a substitute shortage. There are literally thousands of people in your community who could be substitute teachers, if only you gave them convincing reasons to choose to do so. Your problem is the same as many employers bemoaning staffing problems right now; it's no use complaining that people ought to work, but instead, you need to answer the question "Why should somebody want to do this job for you?"

(Also--radical thought-- if you just hired full time substitutes with full pay and benefits, you'd have handy subs every single day. Of course, that would cost money...)


  1. I recently retired and now provide PD for science teachers - except now they're expected to do all their PD after school and on weekends, voluntarily - because there are no subs. No wonder teachers are quitting.

  2. Retired after 27 years as a high school teacher, I recently interviewed with a sub service in the Bay Area, which is notorious for being too expensive a market for teachers to survive on their salaries. The scale offered is $160 to $200 for 4 to 6 hours of work. At best, that works out to $10 an hour less than I made teaching full time, but of course no benefits, at worst it’s around $25 an hour. For a professional in or nearby San Francisco? Not much of a surprise the schools are bemoaning a sub shortage around here.

  3. Two districts in my area are using Covid money to offer $275 and $300 per day. Let the bidding wars begin.